Hands on With the Project xCloud PC Beta

Playing Xbox games in my web browser

Key Takeaways

  • Xbox Game Pass already was one of the best values in gaming, and now you can run it in a web browser.
  • Cloud gaming, in general, is heavily weighted in game publishers' favor.
  • You'll still want to go physical or digital for any game with a strong multiplayer component.
Project xCloud games library

I guess I won't need an Xbox to play my Xbox now, which feels a little peculiar.

I got into the PC/iOS beta for Microsoft's newest version of Project xCloud, which lets Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers play their games via browser or web app. With Google Chrome and a compatible controller, I now have access to a huge number of Xbox games, without actually having to launch the Xbox app or turn my console on.

It makes playing games on Xbox faster and more convenient than it was before, by virtue of the Xbox unit, itself, being surplus to requirements. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers already had the previous version of xCloud as a perk, letting you play Xbox games on Android mobile devices, but this opens up the field.

It's still cloud gaming, though, and still comes with the current state of the field's complications. The shift to the cloud is a great deal for publishers, but still feels like it could leave consumers behind.

In Before You Know It

It's hard to argue with the sheer dollar-per-hour value of Xbox Game Pass right now. For $15 a month, you get access to a rotating, curated assortment of first- and third-party Xbox games, including several recent releases.

The advantage with xCloud over Game Pass on console or PC is that it doesn't require any kind of local installation. You simply can click and play an installed copy of the game on Microsoft's cloud server, which puts you in-game in 3 minutes or less. This also means you can play high-definition games on a low-end machine, because it's essentially an interactive video stream.

Project xCloud games library as it appears in Google Chrome

I ran the xCloud PC beta through its paces with an assortment of games, including Killer Instinct, Xeno Crisis, Wolfenstein: The New Order, and State of Decay 2. In Wolfenstein's case, I was able to seamlessly pick up a run from where I'd left off on my physical Xbox, thanks to automatically syncing save data.

For the most part, I couldn't tell any real difference between playing a game via xCloud on browser or a local installation. The exception was State of Decay 2, which I'm assuming has a lot to do with its need to stay connected to the game's server during play. While I got a fair distance into the game’s solo campaign, I had consistent problems with "floaty" and imprecise controls.

Storm Warning

That's one of the big issues with cloud gaming: it's a bandwidth hog.

Multiplayer games, or anything that stays connected to a server while you play, are going to measurably suffer if you try to play them via the cloud, as your local Internet tries to maintain both connections simultaneously. It's possible, but it's not ideal, and you're a walking target for anyone else in-game.

That also means you're using up a lot of data. You can count on burning at least 100MB per minute spent on an xCloud game, depending on its graphics settings. It's entertaining to play Halo 5 at 4K on an iPhone, but you've got about 4 seconds before you hit your monthly data cap.

It's not without its conveniences, but the logistics for cloud gaming aren't there yet. Since Google got this ball rolling in 2019 with Stadia, I've noticed the general thrust of most of the enthusiasm built up around the cloud, at least in the gaming space, is that it's an amazing deal for a big tech company—all you have to do is keep your servers running—but it's situationally useful, at best, for players on the ground.

Microsoft has some smart ideas going into xCloud, where it's a useful option for Game Pass subscribers rather than a product in itself, but the entire cloud-based gaming model seems to be designed for a version of the internet that doesn’t presently exist. 

It's a solution in search of a problem.

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